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What to make of Cardinal Law?

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 14, 2005

I've read a number of thoughtful columns and blogs in the past few days discussing the reaction, or over-reaction, to Cardinal Law's celebration of the novendiale Mass at St. Peter's Basilica last Monday. Some have maintained that objecting to Law's public appearances is overkill, given the fact that he's out of harm's way. I want to argue that Law's brother bishops -- not the Cardinal himself -- have done the Church a disservice and it's they who deserve the blame.

One's stance on Law's current position depends on one's view of the reason he deserved (or didn't deserve) to lose his former one. Part of the cross-talk stems from the fact that some believe he was ousted as a result of his mistakes, others that he was ousted as a result of sins. What kinds of mistakes he is deemed to have made, what kinds of sins to have committed, will affect one's judgment as to the justice, or appropriateness, of his continuing to serve in a post of public honor. The competent commander whose XO rams a tanker, the incompetent physician who poisons twenty children, the cop who lies under oath to protect his buddies, the traitor who sells his friends into the hands of his enemies -- each merits a different sort of discipline and his prospects of future employment differ accordingly. And one and the same man may fail in several different ways.

The official grounds for Law's ouster don't speak to the blame issue. The Pope accepted his resignation under Canon 401 §2 ("because of boffing a Costa Rican curate or some other grave reason"). In Law's case, clearly, we're stuck with some other grave reason. What that might be we're not told.

Are we obliged, as faithful Catholics, to set Law's culpability at a minimum? Read Bishop Skylstad's official statement on the day of the resignation (December 13, 2002):

"This resignation represents a significant step forward in the healing process, for abuse victims not only in the Boston diocese, but in dioceses across the country," said Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "To restore trust and faith in our church, we must be held accountable. Today's action sends a strong message that all priests and bishops will be held accountable."

Nota bene: Diogenes didn't write this. Rod Dreher didn't write this. VOTF or SNAP didn't write it. This is the U.S. bishops' line, and they obviously cashed-in the "strong message - healing process" coupon in order to buy themselves some good ink and positive PR. Pay special attention to the accountability language.

They're not going to tell us what specific misdeeds Law was held accountable for, but clearly the accountability has to do with Law's being out of work, not simply out of this particular job. Otherwise, the line about restoring "trust and faith in our church" would be meaningless -- and cynical as well, given the fact that shifting abusers from one responsible post to another responsible post was a principal factor in the loss of trust that Law's resignation was seen to remedy. They go out of their way to insist that this is not a significant step sideways.

Could the U.S. bishops foresee Law's appointment to St. Mary Major when they wrote this? Probably not. When the appointment was announced, did they publicly deplore the fact that it saws the floor out from under their trust-through-accountability line? They did nothing of the kind. Are we justified then, in complaining about their trying to have their cake and eat it too, by posing and strutting atop the Accountability Is Us platform and falling silent when Law resurfaces, in the full dignity of cardinal, with all his medals and gold braid gleaming? Yep. And note: this has nothing to do with vindictiveness, with a desire to humiliate Law, or even with a particular view of his wrongdoing. It's the authority of the office of bishop that suffers.

We -- the CWNews crew -- WANT bishops to have authority: not on some trendy primus inter pansies dialogic model, but in the way Irenaeus, John Fisher, Charles Borromeo, and John Henry Newman had authority. That authority requires a mutually recognized requirement of honor in the college of bishops, of which truth-telling and reparation for injuries are an indispensable minimum. Some institutions, more interested in inclusion than trustworthiness, downplay honor and emphasize forgiveness. But here's the rub: in institutional terms, inclusiveness and trustworthiness are mutually exclusive choices, honor and forgiveness are mutually exclusive possibilities. Sure, you can keep your liars and losers and lechers on the payroll at full rank if you find that important, but in doing so you forfeit the ability to speak with authority. Sure, you can claim that humiliation is penance enough and flatter yourself for showing Christian forgiveness, but can you then call others to make sacrifices for the sake of the truth?

Forget it.

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